How It Was: An Eyewitness Account of the March of Millions on May 6

18 May 2012

Photos (c) the author

To join or not to join the protest march on May 6 against the illegally elected president on the eve of his inauguration? That was the question that faced many of those who had taken part in the winter protests, and the answer was uncertain. The title of the event was an unhappy one - confusing and embarrassing. There would be no millions. The number of participants stated in the application made by the organizers to the Moscow government was 5,000 – as opposed to the 100,000 who had taken part in the winter protests. 

Was part of the confusion a result of the reshuffle of working days and holidays that Putin smartly made on the eve of the protests, organizing a 4-day long May holiday? These unexpected free days and the excellent weather certainly took many Muscovites out of the city to their picnics and dachas. 

The reluctance to participate among the public could also have had something to do with the humiliating way in which Putin and Medvedev reacted to the protesters’ demands:

· Mr. Churov, the Chair of the Central Election Committee, was not sacked or punished for all the voting fraud that went on. Quite the contrary, he has just received a high government decoration; 

· Of the forty political prisoners whose release was demanded, only one has been freed; 

· Two liberalization initiatives introduced by President Medvedev, on registration of political parties and on direct elections for governor, were burdened with such amendments that they have lost their original meaning and liberal spirit. 

There is no hope for quick change, and no inspiration for a seemingly meaningless protest. We have to start a long and hard struggle for small gains. These were my feelings on May 5. 

And it was with all these doubts that on May 6 I joined the march, starting at 3 p.m. near the Oktyabrskaya metro station
on Ulitsa Bolshaya Yakimanka, to end at Bolotnaya square where the rally was planned to take place. 

And what did I see? Thousands of people full of cheerful spirits! No, we are not giving up! We are going to see our demands realized! Diversity of beliefs, witty slogans, liberals, democrats, anarchists all in black, leftists under red banners side by side with Pussy Riot's supporters in colourful pantyhose on their heads, gender dissidents with rainbow flags, St. Petersburg's democrats, including observers at the recent elections (two buses arrived, five had been stopped by police), Moscow State University students, all united by the protest against an illegally imposed government. People are chanting:
“Russia without Putin”, “Putin – Thief”... and smiling. Even a helicopter hovering overhead was not perceived as a threat. So, in
spite of the numerous detentions of activists from all over Russia coming to Moscow to support the march, in spite of threats to detain young men of conscript age, the protest appeared massive and successful. 

I was at the end of the column, which slowed down and finally stopped on Malyi Kamenny Bridge in view of Bolotnaya. We saw a huge space between Bolshoi and Malyi Kamenny Bridges blocked by numerous OMON riot police, Bolotnaya fenced off and overcrowded. We heard rumours that Udaltsov, Navalny and Yashin who were at the head of the column had sat down on the pavement in a sit-down strike demanding police rearrange fences on Bolotnaya square to accommodate the people on the bridge for the planned rally. There were no announcements or explanations from the police. The organizers’ own sound-amplifying equipment was on Bolotnaya Square. Nobody knew what was really going on. In the meantime, OMON riot police started grouping behind us and soon we were blocked on Malyi Kamenny Bridge. There was no panic at this point. I was not even considering the possibility of police attacks, because the march and the rally had been agreed on with officials. My private plans urged me to leave, and an opportunity came with a gap opening through
to the embankment on the opposite side of the river to Bolotnaya. There was a group gathered around an empty van with an NTV logo. People were silently throwing coins at the van, expressing their attitude towards the state-owned TV station for its notorious crudely assembled documentary pouring mud at those who had protested in earlier rallies. What a meaningful gesture! But there was no aggression. I had a strong urge to join them. 

Then I heard an announcement via a loudspeaker from the stage at Bolotnaya that the rally had been cancelled at the demand of the police and in the absence of the organizers who could not get to the square. I left for home to find out on
my arrival from Echo Moskvy and Kommersant FM how brutally the OMON riot police had dispersed the crowd, with vicious beatings and hundreds detained (Udaltsov and Navalny were among them). 

Unfortunately, I was not in Moscow over the next few days and did not witness the events that followed the march: police sweeping through Moscow city centre, even breaking into cafes, arresting people wearing white ribbons in hundreds; the motorcade of the newly elected president driving to the inauguration in the Kremlin through a deserted city; and finally a peaceful camp of protesters settled, for the time being, at Chystye Prudy.